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Being a Superhero for Students Earns Assistant Principal Ryan Sykes a $25,000 Milken Educator Award

Virginia administrator improves behavior, math scores and more at Carter G. Woodson Middle School in Hopewell

November 06, 2019

SANTA MONICA, Calif., Putting the hope in Hopewell, VA, Assistant Principal Ryan Sykes is doing whatever it takes for his students at Carter G. Woodson Middle School. Whether it's stoking positive energy in the hallways, or crunching data to individually tailor student strategies, or even donning a superhero costume to reward student success, Sykes knows (and shows) that it’s not about him. It's all about his students, and creating a better future for them. His high-octane approach to school discipline and strong instructional leadership of the math department has not only boosted student engagement but also helped lift achievement scores above state averages.

Yet Sykes was the one rising to unanticipated heights today at a surprise school assembly where he was presented with a Milken Educator Award by CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, Dr. Candice McQueen and Superintendent of Public Instruction, Dr. James Lane. Sykes was named a 2019-20 recipient of the national recognition, which comes with an unrestricted $25,000 cash prize. He is the only Milken Educator Award winner from Virginia this year, and is among up to 40 honorees for 2019-20.

The Milken Educator Awards, hailed by Teacher magazine as the "Oscars of Teaching," has been opening minds and shaping futures for over 30 years. Research shows teacher quality is the driving in-school factor behind student growth and achievement. The initiative not only aims to reward great teachers, but to celebrate, elevate and activate those innovators in the classroom who are guiding America’s next generation of leaders. Milken Educators believe, “The future belongs to the educated.”

Sykes is bringing that sometimes-elusive brighter future closer for his economically challenged students. The relationship-building assistant principal gets to know all of his students in the classroom, through extracurricular activities and by bonding with families in the community. Working in concert with Woodson's math teachers, Sykes is boosting STEM education, promoting online learning and inspiring students to seek academic success in an often-difficult environment.

"Ryan Sykes has a passion for making Carter G. Woodson Middle School a place where every student can thrive," said McQueen. "His approaches to building a positive school culture that honors every child and keeping a focus on academic achievement are emblematic of the best and brightest educators. We are proud to welcome him as a Milken Educator."

"Ryan Sykes epitomizes the dedicated educators at Woodson and at similar schools across the commonwealth who believe in their students and eagerly accept the challenge of helping them meet Virginia's high expectations for learning and achievement," said Lane. "He sees each student as an individual with a unique set of needs. And he understands that meeting those needs through tailored supports and services is at the core of our commitment to equity."

"We are incredibly proud of Mr. Sykes and all that he accomplishes every day," said Dr. Melody Hackney, Superintendent of Hopewell City Public Schools. "His peers and supervisors alike recognize the positive impact he has on all stakeholders at Carter G. Woodson Middle School and in Hopewell. Mr. Sykes' work ethic, his passion for teaching and leading, and his enthusiasm for deeper learning never wanes. His commitment to help all children successfully find their way is what makes him so deserving and what will contribute to his continued success. Mr. Sykes is a special person and a perfect recipient for the Milken Educator Award."

About Milken Educator Ryan Sykes

If you're looking for Ryan Sykes, an assistant principal at Carter G. Woodson Middle School in Hopewell, Virginia, skip his office. You'll likely find him high-fiving and fist-bumping students and teachers in the halls, or modeling lessons and positive behavior supports in classrooms. One of four administrators at Woodson and a former math teacher, Sykes oversees eighth-grade math instruction, discipline and class activities at the high-poverty school. He is a strong instructional leader, coordinates the math department's professional learning communities, and helps teachers develop aligned lessons that include spiraled warm-ups and Socrates web-based instruction. To make sure every student is learning, Sykes sits side by side with teachers as they study data to determine the best interventions for individual students. Woodson's eighth-graders show consistent overall improvement, especially in math, where 83% passed Standards of Learning assessments last spring— a jump from quarterly benchmark scores and 6% higher than the state average.

Sykes has a magical ability to connect with students. He knows every student by name and builds relationships with all of them, especially those with the greatest needs. His energy is boundless and contagious. Sykes is the first one on the dance floor at school socials eats lunch with students in the cafeteria and tackles the obstacle course with them on field day, coaxing reluctant students from the sidelines into the action. He spent an entire day clad in the leotard and tights of Frozone, a character from "The Incredibles," to fulfill a promise after students reached their target on state assessments. Sykes serves on the district's action team for improving attendance, studying specific student data as he works with attendance officers to problem-solve with families. His background in special education makes him particularly sensitive to working with all people's talents and challenges.

Smart, confident and respected, Sykes goes the extra mile to get the best from students, teachers and parents. He researched, coordinated and implemented an advisory program that helps students foster peer-to-peer relationships through positive behavior, communication, empathy and social skills. Sykes supervised a yearlong STEM program for underserved African American young men at Woodson made available through a grant from Virginia State University and Verizon. Students move to high school brimming with confidence because of the advisory groups, mentoring sessions and tutoring services he facilitates.

Sykes earned a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies in 2011 and a master's degree in administration and supervision in 2014 from Virginia State University. He is pursuing a doctorate in administration and supervision.

More information about Sykes, plus links to photos and a video from today's assembly, can be found on the Milken Educator Awards website at

Milken Educators are selected in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish. In addition to the $25,000 prize and public recognition, the honor includes membership in the National Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,700 top teachers, principals, and specialists dedicated to strengthening education.

In addition to participation in the Milken Educator Network, 2019-20 recipients will attend a Milken Educator Forum in Indianapolis from March 26-28, 2020 where they will network with their new colleagues and exchange ideas with state and federal leaders on the future of education. In addition, the Milken Educator Awards' "Why Not Us" program will pair each 2019-20 recipient with a veteran Milken Educator mentor to explore and prepare for expanded leadership roles that strengthen education practice and policy.

More than $140 million in funding, including $70 million in individual $25,000 awards, has been devoted to the overall Awards initiative, which includes powerful professional development opportunities throughout recipients' careers. Many have gone on to earn advanced degrees and be placed in prominent posts and on state and national education committees.

The Awards alternate yearly between elementary and secondary educators. Unlike most teacher recognition programs, the Milken Educator Award is completely unique: Educators cannot apply for this recognition and do not even know they are under consideration. Candidates are sourced through a confidential selection process and then are reviewed by blue ribbon panels appointed by state departments of education. Those most exceptional are recommended for the Award, with final selection made by the Milken Family Foundation.

The cash award is unrestricted. Recipients have used the money in diverse ways; for instance, on their children's or their own continuing education, financing dream field trips, establishing scholarships, and even on the adoption of children.

To get regular updates on the surprise Milken Educator Award events, follow and use the #MilkenAward hashtag on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Everyone is encouraged to watch the tour at,, and

For more information, visit or call MFF at (310) 570-4772.

About the Milken Educator Awards

The very first Milken Educator Awards were presented by the Milken Family Foundation in 1987. The Awards provide public recognition and individual financial rewards of $25,000 to elementary and secondary school teachers, principals and specialists from around the country who are furthering excellence in education. Recipients are heralded in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish.

Lynne Russo 
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